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Jennifer Schneider

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On Nuclear Power and 'Hating' America

Posted: 09/09/10 05:05 PM ET

I've been feeling itchy today, and haven't quite put my finger on why. At least I couldn't until a few minutes ago, when watching this video of the now-deceased, highly-respected climate scientist Stephen Schneider on a British show called Sceptics brought things into focus for me. I'm itchy because the audience members, who are "skeptical" of anthropogenic climate change theories, can barely contain their disdain for Schneider. Though he remains pretty patient for the most part, at certain moments he also shows a similar disdain for them, and it all reminds me of how my Nuclear Power and Public Policy class went down last night.

We were wrapping up a discussion of Helen Caldicott's Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. Caldicott is a medical doctor who has been a powerful and effective anti-nuclear activist in the UK, US, and Australia. I respect her passion and drive, and at the same time admit that her book is dreadful in certain respects. It uses "science" as evidence in making what should be political or ethical arguments, is incorrect on many points, cherry picks evidence, doesn't admit to uncertainty where there is loads of uncertainty, and presents itself as a scholarly investigation when in fact it is more of a polemic (not that I mind polemics -- I love them. But I like it best when they acknowledge they are polemics. It seems more honest that way).

At the same time, I know there is a lot of angst among scientists and engineers when non-scientists and non-engineers presume to have opinions on scientific and technological matters. This angst seems to be compounded when a layperson critic is also a woman. In my experience, there is often an irrational anger that surfaces in these instances. The head of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Mines would prefer I didn't assign Caldicott because it gets so many of his students in an uproar. I don't know if they would react the same way if the book was written by a man, or an engineer, whose viewpoint they just happened to disagree with. I suspect not.

And yet, I still assign it. Why? Why would I assign a poorly argued polemic in a course in Nuclear Power and Public Policy? Why invite the voice of woman-who-is-not-an-expert into the hallowed halls of a science and engineering university? Why deal with the anti-nuclear argument when it's so much easier to provide students with viewpoints they agree with, that don't challenge their commitments to scientific and technological "progress"?

Well, because. Because we live in a democracy that is threatening to become a technocracy, and may already be one, in which only "expert" voices seem to be given privilege in debates about science and technology, and in which only those who are incredibly highly skilled, trained, and narrowly-focused are making decisions that affect us all (like that little ole economic crisis, for example). Because we need to be able to read something written by someone whose views we disagree with and be able to make sense of it in a rational way. Because we need to be able to withstand and engage with multiple perspectives, and not simply tune into the voices we agree with.

"I think she hates America," said one student.

"What?" I said. "Tell me more about that. Tell me what makes you say that."

See, it turns out that Caldicott's book is openly, scathingly critical of the Bush administration, and is that way from the introduction forward. She makes no bones about it. It turns out, for this student, if you critique the government of the United States, it goes to show that you in turn must hate America.

Again, Caldicott's book is a polemic, and I present it as such. And I disagree with much of it, and tell the students so. Yet it would be irresponsible of me to let a student conflate a critique of government with hating America, wouldn't it, without some sort of correction? Don't we need to create and preserve spaces for rational critique, debate, and disagreement, especially in our university classes? Or do we decide to burn books like Caldicott's because they voice a radically different position or worldview from our own? What is my responsibility in the face of such a reactionary response?

My answer: it's our duty as faculty members to provide these spaces for debate. We must also provide students with methods and structures of critique for analyzing arguments we/they may initially have knee-jerk reactions against or for. I am not arguing that I must share my liberal viewpoints in my classrooms: I specifically don't do that, on purpose. I model critique on all texts, and am careful in which of my own perspectives I share. But I do the best I can to provide the best tools I can so that students can do their own analyses, and discover their own truths, using as an open a mind as they can muster. Is this in itself now a radical act? Perhaps.

So I'll keep the Caldicott in, for now, and continue to deal with the discomfort and resistance this creates.

Next we are on to Gwyneth Cravens' defense of nuclear power, The Power to Save the World. I imagine the heat in my classroom will go down a few notches as a result. But I think I might still be itchy for a while.